The Genesis of the worldwide phenomenon Downton Abbey

“The return to Downton Abbey has been a rather extraordinary, at times almost surreal, experience,” says series creator and writer Julian Fellowes.

“We finished filming the last season in 2015, made sure that all the characters were safely tucked up in their lives, said goodbye to them, marked the moment with a wonderful wrap party in the Ivy Club, and that, I thought, was that.  But it seemed the public was not yet quite prepared to be parted from the Crawleys and their servants and the rumours of a film grew and grew until Gareth Neame and the rest of the team felt unable to resist them.  And so the film was born.”

For Fellowes , the desire for a film of a series is “an expression of how much people miss the show, itself, and, besides, in Downton Abbey the house was the main character in the drama.  It was the demands of the house that drove storyline after storyline and their love of the house that made the family stand by it.  So I knew from the start that we would be back at Highclere for a lot of the time.”

A long-running series like Downton Abbey is quite unlike any other kind of dramatic form, certainly for the writer but I think for everyone involved. 

“It is the only time that you are writing for (or directing) performances you are already familiar with, played by actors you know and enjoy in the roles,” says Fellowes.

“With a play or a musical or most movies, you write and (usually) finish the script before it is cast.  But, with Downton, I was looking at the episode cuts by the time I was writing Episode Four of the first series.  I had got to know these characters;  I had got to see what the actors could do with them, and I started to write to their strengths of  which this wonderful cast had many.  Their performances shaped the narrative as much as anything and, after six years of that process, unsurprisingly, you do get very involved with these invented but very real-feeling people.  I’m always being asked which character was my favourite, but the truth is, they were all my favourites.  They were my children.  I created them and the actors and I grew up in the roles, in the world of Downton Abbey, together.”

Julian Fellowes

“I have been lucky in the years since Downton finished, with musicals in the West End and on Broadway, two movies out this year and two television shows now in pre-production, so I have no grounds for complaint, but of course I rather miss the sort of security that the world of Downton gave me.  It is a marvellously unhurried form of drama.  You can hint and suggest and choose the moment to kick off a new story, but no one’s in a hurry.  So of course I miss it and, in that way, it was fun to be back in their fictional lives.”

Writing the film wasn’t the same as working on the show had been. 

“In a television episode, you will normally give strong stories to four or maybe five characters and the others will simply participate in one of them.  Then the following week a different four or five will get their stories and the rest of the cast will support them.  But in a film everyone must have their tale to tell and all of them must be resolved, which meant quite a bit of plaiting.”

“We chose to make the Royal visit the central strand.  King George V and Queen Mary would tour Yorkshire and spend a night at Downton, and all the different narratives, some happy, some less so, would be tangential to this main event.  This was not too much of a stretch, in terms of reality.  Their eldest daughter, Princess Mary, the Princess Royal after 1932, would later live at Harewood with her husband and, at the date of the film, was living at Goldsborough Hall and so Yorkshire was not at all off the beaten track for her parents. “

“Making the film gave us the opportunity to manage things on a grander scale than we could have done on television and the Royal couple (brilliantly played by Simon Jones and Geraldine James) provide us with the excuse to fill the screen with pomp and pageantry.  Added to which, we would explore how our old friends would react to the honour, and the answer is, not all of them favourably.  But you will have to see the film to learn the different responses on display.”

“We had a read through at Twickenham Studios, before shooting began, and suddenly there we were, all the faces that had dominated my waking hours from ten years previously, sitting side by side round a vast square of tables, scripts open before them, ready to get back into the skins of the Downton regulars.”

“Writing is a funny business.  You spend so much time alone, staring at a computer screen, waiting for ideas, and then suddenly – or it feels like suddenly – it becomes real and there are recces and fittings and a crew working feverishly to get everything ready and your words aren’t yours any more.  They belong to the actors and the director and, finally, the public.”

“It is always a strange moment when you hear them read, or acted, for the first time and somehow seeing this cast, which had dispersed with farewells and kisses three years earlier, made it stranger still.  During the filming I would visit the set at Shepperton Studios where, years before, my life had changed with the making of Gosford Park, and there I would wonder at the skills on display from every brilliant department and the ease with which the actors reassumed their roles, and now it is time to step back and to let the audience into our secret.  I hope audiences enjoy the finished product as much as I do.”

The Genesis Of Downton Abbey  

“The idea of Downton had been percolating in my mind for a long time, because I always felt that the world is a very interesting one,” says Gareth Neame, the Executive Producer on Downton Abbey. “When I saw Gosford Park I was incredibly impressed by it. Julian Fellowes had won the Academy Award for his screenplay. It really stayed with me. Then, a few years later I collaborated with Julian on a novel of his which didn’t come to fruition, but this idea of making an episodic series set in an English country house was in the back of my mind; taking the idea of Gosford Park but spinning it off as an episodic show.

“We started our conversations about the Downton movie around about season three or four of the television show,  “I think at that point we didn’t know exactly how many seasons we were going to run to, but we did think that the show was so popular it had quite a cinematic feel. We thought it would work and transfer well to the big screen.”

“Once the seed had been sown the conversations really took off around season five and six. We decided we would bring the TV series to an end after season six, which many people felt was a bit too soon. I think we certainly could have done at least another season but we wanted to quit while we were ahead. The fact we were able to say to the fans that the show is going to end after the sixth series, but we hope to come back with a movie… it sort of sweetened the pill.”

Gareth Neame

“We wanted to take a step back from making episodic stories of the week and do something that was more of a big screen event. The crucial difference is that in a television series with twenty characters, each character has a couple of episodes where they can be right to the fore and a couple of episodes when they’re more in the background. The audience gets to see the entire ensemble and enjoy their stories across the whole series. In the movie you’ve only got two hours, and those twenty characters have really got to punch through. Not many movies have that many characters so there was a real challenge with the script to have one story that all of our characters could be engaged in.”

When Neame, began talking to Julian Fellowes about developing a new television drama series, it was an adaptation of Julian’s acclaimed novel Snobs that he had in mind. Discussions quickly turned to a subject that Gareth had been mulling over for some time and, as luck would have it, Julian had been thinking along similar lines.

“It was while working on an adaptation of Julian’s novel Snobs that I first thought we should really work on an episodic series set in an Edwardian country house,” says Neame. “Firstly, because it is a setting that is uniquely English and we haven’t had an original programme like this in many years and secondly, Julian and I both thought it was good territory to revisit.”

“I couldn’t think of anyone in the world better to write it than Julian and obviously there was a very big nod towards Gosford Park, which had made such a huge impact on defining the English country house genre,” he explains.

“I thought, if you could just take that period and put it into a prime-time series, you could have something really special,” he continues.

For Gareth there are a few television genres that are uniquely American and some that are uniquely British of which Downton Abbey is one.

“When I read Julian’s initial treatment it had such a confidant command of this period and grasp of this world, the family, the servants, and the entire setting that it was clear this was something he had wanted to write for a long time.”

For Julian, Gosford Park struck a chord with audiences everywhere and it was a period he was keen to return to.

”I had never written a television series before and I found you have such tremendous freedom to develop the characters. The way of life of these fully staffed houses had always interested me, long before I wrote Gosford Park. There is something intriguing about a group of people living in such close proximity and yet with such different expectations.”

In these country houses, Julian talks of families living within “a curious universe, alongside their servants who are, on the whole, living a different life but are just as strongly graded as their masters so that, within their world, the butler is King and the housekeeper is Queen, with all their own hopes and dreams.”

“It always intrigues me how did people deal with it, did they retain a sense of self? I hope in Downton we have a very balanced set up as both Gareth and I wanted it to be something recognisable and identifiable to audiences.”

The Edwardian period is not often portrayed in television drama, with dramatists and writers favouring the regency period of Jane Austen instead.

“This is a time that perhaps our parents, but more likely our grandparents, would have lived in, so it’s not a completely foreign country,” explains Gareth. “The modern era began at the end of the 19th Century and this was something Julian and I discussed a lot. By the late 19th century, electricity came in and then gradually motor-cars, telephones, people commuting to work on the London Underground or on a bus and then came mortgages and pensions and are all things that modern audiences recognise and identify with.”

“My father was born in 1912,” adds Julian, “So 1912, which is the year the television series began, is a period that many people alive today have heard about from their immediate family members; it’s still relatively recent history.”

Crucial to the look and feel of the show was for Gareth to bring modernity to the design without compromising the period.

“We wanted the show to have a contemporary feel to it without losing any of the glorious elements that made the era unique. I think this is helped by it being an original script allowing the audience to enjoy all the trappings associated with period drama.”

Julian was also keen to portray what it was like to live and work in service during this time and for women, particularly young women, service was the only option.

“When the economic system changed, people, and most particularly women, began to be offered jobs where they could have a free evening instead of being on duty until they went to bed. It was clearly a better option. Remember during this time we saw the rise of women’s rights, the organisation of labour, the changing status of the worker, the massive increase of productivity in the Midlands, so the modern world was pushing though and in fact the First World War would release all of that energy,” explains Julian

The ambition of Downton Abbey was realised, not only in the script, but in the design, the location, the production values, and ultimately the casting. For Gareth, the excitement of being a producer is to watch these elements come together.

“I enjoy the whole process of filming from beginning to end,” he says, “It’s a process that’s made of a lot of different talents and skills and seeing each of them come together is hugely rewarding; I mean the whole operation, including working very closely on the development and at that point its very much about the script; then at a certain point it becomes about the casting, locations, costumes, make-up and hair, then editing and suddenly the most important thing you’re working on is music and finally the publicity. I really do enjoy all of those aspects of production,” he explains.

“Ultimately for me as a producer it’s seeing the finished product coming together. You create something of value that has a purpose and will entertain.”

Before any of these elements can come together, getting the right producer on board is vital to the success of any production.

“I asked Liz (Trubridge) to be the series producer, not least because of her track record, but mainly because of her relationship with Julian I knew that would work very well for us. She’s been a great blessing for me and run such a tight ship. Nigel Marchant is an excellent producer, who I have enjoyed working with in the past. It really makes my life a thousand times easier having such a great team on the ground.”

For Gareth, casting was also crucial for Downton Abbey but what can often be difficult and arduous process was in fact very straightforward.

“It was a joy to cast this drama purely because it wasn’t hard to find the actors you would want to play this part and we were blessed that pretty much everyone we went to came on-board.”

One of Julian’s many considerable achievements with the scripts is to create many characters, introduce them all in the first episode and give them storylines.

”Julian has got a great command of every single one of those characters and the journeys they go on and that really gives the actors something they can get their teeth into.”

“The modern audiences’ viewing habits are much more sophisticated now and viewers are able to handle lots of information simultaneously, most likely as a result of the increasing pace of television dramas such as Chicago Hope and The West Wing,” says Julian.

“When the television show ended I made a lot of comments at the time about the possibility of making a film and it felt like a contract I had made with the fans. At the time I didn’t know whether that would be possible. It would mean 20+ calendars aligning and having a script we were happy with, not to mention pulling the financing together to make it. There were so many obstacles along the way, but I really felt that if I didn’t get the film off the ground I would have failed the fans in some way so I really wanted to achieve it.

“It’s been a huge journey for us and over a decade since I first proposed the series premise to Julian Fellowes. We were in pre-production for the series in 2009 and in 2019 we’re seeing the release of the movie, so I’ve worked on Downton Abbey every single day across those ten years. Getting the movie into production and to release is the real icing on a rather large cake.”

“I want people to leave the theatre reminded that they love the show and why they love it. I want to leave them wanting more. It’s a treat for the fans in particular. It’s a movie that I think everyone can enjoy but if you’re a real fan it brings you right back in connection with that place, that environment, those people, those characters with a whole new raft of stories packed into this two-hour movie. Downton is a world that had good and bad stories. It had dark stories and bright stories, optimistic stories and negative stories, and yet overwhelmingly the sense of optimism is what we are left with. I’d love people to leave the theatre enriched, happy and remembering their love of Downton.”

“The appeal of Downton in 2019 is partly inevitably, a return to the familiar,” says producer Liz Trubridge. “I also think the stories are universal ones. It’s about dealing with love and difficulties and family life and sadness and heartache and conflict. There also tends to be at least one character that people can either identify with or reminds them of someone, and there are those that they love to hate or love to love. These themes are so universal, I was recently talking to a group of Chinese students and I asked them what they related to and they said because the stories are human stories they could relate to the characters.”